Traveling around Canada for the mostly carless — ideas?
March 18, 2019 10:57 AM   Subscribe

BF and I are planning a trip to Canada, using Montreal as our HQ. We'd like to spend a few days there, maybe hit Ottawa or Toronto as well, and see some nature while we're at it. Difficulties: we're pretty ignorant about what to actually see and do in Canada, and we'd like to do all of the above while driving as little as possible. Help?

BF and I have a vague, far-from-fully-fleshed notion that we'd like to go on a trip to Canada this summer. We have friends who can put us up in Montreal, so we're planning on using their place as a base of operations, explore the city and surroundings for a few days and then... um, head out and see a bit more of the country? Possibly visit Ottawa or Toronto, whichever is prettier? We've heard that there's nature in Canada, so seeing some of it would be nice, I guess? As you have already noticed, we are rather clueless, but very much open to suggestions.

Additional snowflakey detail: BF doesn't drive, and I'm a somewhat inexperienced and anxious driver. I can manage most situations competently enough, but driving long hours and navigating difficult roads or dense urban traffic drain my energy very quickly. I'm open to the idea of renting a car, but if we do that I'd like to keep our road trips short and as stress-free as possible.

With that caveat in mind, can you recommend some interesting destinations in and around Montreal, either accessible by some form of public transport/guided tour, or easily reachable by car without driving more than, say, three hours at a time?

Also, any opinions on where else in Canada we should go? We kinda think we'd like to visit one more city, but have no clue whether we'd enjoy Ottawa or Toronto best. Our taste in cities tends to gravitate towards the walkable, quirky and interesting — would visiting Vancouver be worth heading all the way over to the west coast? Any other places, or fun activities we're not thinking of?

We're very lost, Hive Mind. Please illuminate us with your opinions. Thanks!
posted by doctorpiorno to Travel & Transportation around Canada (23 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Canada is vast. Without a car, travel is expensive. There is train service between Ottawa and Toronto, but it's slow. You can fly, but it's expensive.

Flying to Vancouver from Toronto is five or six hours, and for me, anyway, costs about as much as flying from Vancouver to Tokyo.

Vancouver, however, has the advantage of being closer to "nature" than some other cities in Canada. North Shore mountains are just a Seabus ride away.
posted by JamesBay at 11:06 AM on March 18 [3 favorites]

From Montreal you can take the train to Quebec City, Toronto, or Ottawa. Ottawa is the closest and its historic and cultural parts are interesting, but I would generally not describe Ottawa as quirky. It's a government town. Quebec City I haven't been to in eons but it's definitely fairly unique in flavour in Canada. Toronto has lots of quirky. All three have pretty walkable downtowns.

For nature, from Montreal you have the Laurentians. I recommend a stay in St. Donat or Ste Agathe and do some hikes - they're all pretty easy and kind of quintessentially central/east Canadian - pine trees and lakes, lakes and pine trees! There are busses but you would probably want to rent a car to go up. It's about an hour and a bit, and not a difficult drive. If you are going to Ottawa, you can continue up to there.

Basically I'd recommend Montreal -> one night in the Laurentians -> Ottawa for an easier trip, or Montreal -> train -> Toronto or Quebec City depending on your interests. Quebec is more more francophone and foreign. Alternatively if you look at Porter flights you might find something inexpensive.
posted by warriorqueen at 11:12 AM on March 18 [6 favorites]

TO has a good transit system.
Ottawa has excellent museums, most of which are within walking distance of downtown.
posted by brujita at 11:17 AM on March 18

The Province of Quebec has a decent cycling network that you may want to look into.

From Toronto and other cities, nature can be accessed via Parkbus.
posted by TORunner at 11:27 AM on March 18 [2 favorites]

If you have plenty of time, you can easily bus between the major Ontario cities and even many of the minor cities. For more money and slightly less time, and a slightly more humane experience, there's the train. You can find info on the Greyhound and ViaRail websites. If money isn't a concern, you can also fly between the cities - Porter sometimes has good sales that make it close to train cost.

Most of the larger cities have decent public transit and walkability downtown, at least from a US perspective, though certainly not perfect. You should be fine getting around within the heart of the city, but "out in the country" will be tricky most places. But if you rent a car, you can get out to nature trails in under an hour from most Canadian cities (not Toronto).

You don't mention when you're coming - if it's soon, be warned that the weather isn't great for the next couple months. Either cold or lots of puddles, slushy, freezing rain, etc. Bring waterproof boots or you will be completely miserable. Nature is also not very exciting at the moment. It starts getting nice around May, late May to be safe. In Ottawa, the tulip festival is a nice thing to visit for. Many people also like coming in the fall for the tree colours (especially Gatineau park). In high summer be warned that it is very warm and humid.

I love love love Vancouver and highly recommend visiting and hiking there someday but it's probably better as a separate trip unless you're literally flying from the other side of the world and here for months. It's quite a long and expensive flight from Ontario/Quebec.
posted by randomnity at 11:30 AM on March 18 [2 favorites]

Also if you're choosing mainly between Ottawa and Toronto, Toronto is very much "big city" feel and has lots of city activities to do whereas Ottawa is much smaller and quieter but has a lot more access to nature close by (mainly the greenbelt and Gatineau park). I am in Ottawa and happy to answer specific questions if you have any.

Neither one is particularly "quirky" (that's more Montreal) and both are fairly walkable downtown but not in the outskirts.
posted by randomnity at 11:38 AM on March 18

From your profile I assume you're coming from Spain. I would suggest coming in the summer unless you already have winter gear. The spring in most parts is... complicated. Coming in the fall can be interesting but the weather can be difficult to predict in many places.

Walkable and quirky cities are a thing here, but Toronto most definetly is not it. Better suggestions might include CHarlottetown PEI, Kingston ON, Victoria BC.

Good public transit with good access to interesting or spectacular natural features aren't feature that always go together.

Montreal is truly a city of festivals in the summer and can be pretty in it's own right. Vancouver is close to mountains & sits on the sea but isn't really great at either.

If you like mountains I'd take in Calgary and do the short drive to Banff (or Canmore), maybe Squamish/Whistler.

If you want to see pacific beaches I'd figure out getting to Tofino; though it's basically a village surrounded by beaches and the roads may not be comfortable to drive on. Great walking though. Victoria is more walkable than Vancouver, simply because it's smaller. I also has ferries to the mainland (both BC and Washington State) as well as several of the gul islands.

You've cast a very wide net with your question. After getting some feedback it might be good to consider a short list of priorities, timelines and constraints and ask a follow up question when you know more. Everyone knows that this is a big place; it's hard to truly grasp just how big let alone the ramnifications of a population half the size of Italy on a land mass the size of Europe.
posted by mce at 11:49 AM on March 18 [1 favorite]

If you're going to be based in Montreal I suggest considering driving east to New Brunswick or into PEI versus going towards Toronto, if nature, small, quirky is more your thing and you want it to be low key, plus you'll see the ocean. Driving shouldn't be too stressful whereas driving around Toronto can be. Montreal is great.

Canada has beautiful provincial parks all over the country and if you like to camp you can reserve a spot, or you can do day trips or stay in nearby hotels/motels. If you do want to go to Toronto there are beautiful beaches nearby and the great lakes are worth seeing if you're going to stay in Ontario. Sandbanks provincial park is near Toronto (4 hours from Montreal) and amazing, Lake Huron is super beautiful (amazing swimming, beautiful sunsets, lots of nearby provincial parks, not remote but remote enough you enjoy nature), Tobermory/Bruce Peninsula is popular for good reason, but these would require an overnight somewhere on your way as they are farther afield from Montreal.

FWIW I'm from Toronto. Toronto has Centre Island and some nice festivals and concerts, amazing food everywhere, you can bike along the lakeshore, and I live near Lake Huron now and have done a lot of recent summer weeken trips nearby. I haven't made it out West to BC yet but obviously it's very beautiful and if you can afford the airfare it would be amazing I'm sure.
posted by lafemma at 12:01 PM on March 18 [1 favorite]

The train is awesome and it's not FAST but it's at least comfortable and you can show up within the half an hour before your train leaves and get on and then it drops you off right downtown. No long security or bag drop line up, just comfortable downtime with wifi and food and bathrooms. I love the train and it's easily my top way to get in between cities and my partner and I own a car.

Montreal is a good base. It takes two hours to get to Ottawa and Quebec City from Montreal and then about four hours to get to Toronto from there or from Ottawa. Focussing your time on the Montreal-Ottawa-Toronto triangle would be a good idea.

Ottawa's downtown is very pretty in the summer and there is always a lot going on. Toronto is FANTASTIC, but super huge so it's hard to get to see lots and I would say that the downtown isn't quite as nice as Ottawa's - Toronto's appeal is really in its neighbourhoods and they're further away from each other (though Toronto has reasonably good public transportation). Ottawa also is right near Gatineau Park where you could rent a car and go camping or hiking or whatnot (you can also get to some sections of it via public transport or bike there very easily). Ottawa has a nice recreational pathway system to bike on also.

Vancouver and the mountain parks are great but those are two separate trips.
posted by urbanlenny at 12:05 PM on March 18 [1 favorite]

Easy access to nature without a car is difficult in North America. This is due to infrastructure priorities, which are at least in part due to population density or lack of density and distance. On the other hand, at least outside urban areas, the roads tend to be spacious and not overly busy. They were generally built for driving and are easy to navigate. But the distances are much greater. So driving tends to be less exhausting but an hr doesn’t necessarily get you very far either. On the other hand, you may be able to get day trips to somewhere moderately green from urban areas. But you may spend a lot of time on a bus as opposed to hiking. So it goes both ways.
posted by koahiatamadl at 12:13 PM on March 18 [1 favorite]

On one trip I flew to Montreal, took the train to Quebec City, then got a ride with traveling companions to Baie St Paul. Then we took the bus (Intercar?) back to Quebec City. It wasn't bad, but I found out the hard way that it's not France and you can't drink wine on the train.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 12:34 PM on March 18

Welcome! Montreal is a great base and a fun city any time of year. You could easily pass a couple of weeks in the city using public transit and not run out of things to do. There is a new festival rolling into town just about every week in the summer. Ottawa is an easy train ride away, or you can catch a bus if you'd like to do it even more cheaply. The trip is a couple of hours. I recommend Ottawa if you are interested in national museums and visiting Parliament. The main part of town is very walkable.

Quebec City is another nearby destination with a different flavour to Montreal. It is about 2.5 hours away and can be reached by train or bus. Both Quebec City and Ottawa have OK public transit once you get there.

Parkbus has shuttles set up that can take you to some national and provincial parks. Scroll down to the "Explore Parks of Quebec" section, or contact the people at Navette Nature to ask about summer 2019 routes. It looks like they have not posted them yet.

Vancouver (my home town) is gorgeous but a long way from Montreal (like a 5.5 hour $800ish return flight far). Toronto is a 5.5-6 hour drive from Montreal with buses and trains available.
posted by Cuke at 1:43 PM on March 18 [3 favorites]

Don't come for nature in May/early June or you will be consumed by black flies, large-toothed, tiny-winged creations from hell that swarm and leave divots in your flesh.
posted by kate4914 at 3:28 PM on March 18

To reiterate/add some points:
Canada's really big. Montreal to Ottawa is the same as Madrid to Salamanca; Montreal to Toronto is Madrid to Barcelona. But the train is much slower and less frequent than in Europe; there are about half a dozen trains per day from Montreal to Toronto and they take five hours or longer.

Quebec City is indeed lovely, but the main unique thing about it is it's large, relatively intact centre of historic French architecture; unique in North America because it's so European, so you may not be as impressed.

The six word guide to Canada is "East for culture, west for nature" but if you have limited time the 5 hour flight to western Canada may seem too long. You can see something close to nature in Vancouver proper (you can see the mountains, Stanley Park is lovely) which is a great city to visit without a car. You can also go to Calgary and get to Banff, the gem of the mountains, without a car but it's somewhat limited -- this previous question has details.

On the east coast (and thus quicker to fly to from Montreal), there isn't a lot of non-car transport to nature I know of, but two things you might consider are Prince Edward Island, which is rural (beautiful farms), has a little nature, mostly in the form of cold-water beaches, and is very small, by Canadian standards. Charlottetown, the capital, is a small town and the driving should be relatively short and relaxed. The other idea is the Cabot Trail on Cape Breton Island, which is a 2-3 day drive (you can do it in 1 but take your time) which is just majestic nature but the road is quite hilly and windy.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 4:57 PM on March 18

Please note I am neither Canadian nor knowledgeable about their commuter infrastructure beyond many enjoyable visits to large cities there. This post just reminds me of multiple friends from European countries visiting (when I lived in Texas) who had no real understanding of the size of North America. Assuming you are coming from Spain (based on mce's statement), you really need to understand the size of the country. In land mass, Canada is (roughly) 20 times larger than Spain. Now most of that area is not anything you would be interested in (presumption on my part), so let's say the part you would like to see is just 10 times the size of Spain.

Think about how long it would take you to visit a city in France by car - then multiply that time tenfold. Automobiles are the default because light rail makes no sense over such distances.

My hope is you do visit Canada, have a wonderful time, and just manage your plans wisely.
posted by iStranger at 6:44 AM on March 19

An obvious idea: Take VIA Rail to Toronto, then take the GO Train to Niagara Falls.

If you like wandering around a city: In Toronto, get a TTC Day Pass and a TTC Map and hop on and off the 501 Queen Streetcar. There's strolling to do in The Beaches, Leslieville, Riverdale, Downtown/City Hall, Queen West, and Parkdale. (When you get to Parkdale, grab a roti at Island Foods.) On the way, take a side trip down to the Distillery District. Take another up Spadina to Chinatown and Kensington Market. (Kensington Market is probably the last bit of truly quirky left in downtown Toronto.) Take your last side trip up Roncesvalles Avenue to end the streetcar ride. If you have any legs left at that point, head for High Park and Grenadier Pond.
posted by clawsoon at 7:10 AM on March 19 [3 favorites]

If you want to get off the streetcar and bike for a while, Toronto's Bike Share program has lots of bike docks that you can stick a credit card in a rent a bike from. Bikes can be returned to any dock.

If you want nature, ride your bike east on the Harbourfront Trail and Leslie Spit to Tommy Thompson Park and look for birds. The cormorants are an impressive sight if you come at the right time of year.

If you want culture, ride your bike west down the Queen's Quay portion of the Harbourfront Trail and stop for whatever's going on at the Harbourfront Centre.
posted by clawsoon at 7:22 AM on March 19

My suggestions for Toronto all assume nice weather. If the weather's not nice, there's always the horrible underground corporate labyrinth known as The PATH. Realize you can't find anything you were hoping to find in the twenty miles of tunnels. Panic as you try to find your way out. Relax as you accept that you can, and will, live in the tunnels forever.
posted by clawsoon at 7:36 AM on March 19 [1 favorite]

Thanks so much for your answers, everyone! Lots of great suggestions here. I'm sure they will massively help us figure out what to do and narrow down our scattershot plans to a manageable level. We tentatively wanted to travel sometime in late July-early August, so hopefully the weather will not be an issue by then (Madrid is a bloody oven in the summer, so we should be OK with the heat).

I'll definitely check out the Parkbus and all your ideas for sights around the big cities, as well as your downtown suggestions. Cycling outings are another lovely idea I hadn't even thought about, and that will surely go down well with BF, so glad you suggested those!

mce, iStranger — thanks for the reality check about the size of the country, too. You're absolutely right, the sheer vastness of America is hard for us to get to grips with, and our bias probably needed to be pointed out. Guess we'll save the west coast for another trip!
posted by doctorpiorno at 3:56 PM on March 19

Montreal is the best large city in Canada for visitors in my view, with a lively restaurant and nightlife scene. So you are lucky to start there.

Personally I wouldn't go out of my way to visit Toronto, which is interesting in its own way, unless you felt there were some particular things there that you are curious about.

Ottawa is a smaller large city and maybe less diverting in general, but it's definitely worth a day trip to see 'The Canadian Museum of History', which I Very Highly Recommend to visitors. The curators evoke a fascinating narrative about how the interactions and conflicts of cultures evolved to where Canada is today. It's like a crash course in Canadian identity, and a uniquely Canadian experience!

Viewing forests, hiking over granite rocks on the Canadian Shield, and swimming in lakes is a distinctively Canadian cottage-country summer thing that everyone enjoys. Parkbus, or a rental car pointed North with some hours of driving is required. (I'm more familiar with Ontario than Quebec in this regard). Please note that May & June are quite annoying for massive swarms of flying biting bugs, July & August are more crowded with fellow humans, and September is cooler but the best time in my view.
posted by ovvl at 4:48 PM on March 19

If you're interested in some casual country cycling, maybe visit Chambly or Magog and start from there.
posted by ovvl at 5:15 PM on March 19 [1 favorite]

Train from Montreal to Ottawa (2hrs), then rent a car and/or bikes on arrival. Driving in Montreal is not for the faint of heart - traffic is always heavy and there are on and off ramps on BOTH SIDES of the highway (?!?). Ottawa driving is tolerable; there isn't much traffic compared to most major cities.

There's lots to do in Ottawa. I don't know about clubs/nightlife, but it's Canada's 4th largest city, so there are lots of museums, restaurants, and cool shops. There's Parliament, lots of monuments, etc. Cute neighborhoods like The Glebe, Westboro, and the Byward Market. There's also lots of access to nature. There are hundreds of km of bike paths all around the city, and if you want woods/camping just go over the bridge to Gatineau Park.

Ottawa's July/August weather is often 30+ and very humid, so plan accordingly.

Personally I wouldn't bother with Toronto. IMHO it's just a big generic city (I lived there for years). Quebec City is lovely and Charlevoix/Baie St. Paul is well worth a couple of days for the scenery/hiking/cheese. It's very francophone, in my experience, so if you don't speak French maybe check in advance to see if that will be a problem.
posted by Frenchy67 at 7:23 PM on March 19 [1 favorite]

If you want to do some more serious cycling, I've heard that the Gaspe Peninsula is... let's see... "the most spectacular biking I have ever done"... "a classic"... "one of the top bike touring routes in Canada"... "an amazing ride"... etc. Looks like there are some tour groups available if you'd want to ride in a pack. However, parts of it are described as having hills as difficult as the Rocky Mountains, so it's something you'd want to be in shape for.
posted by clawsoon at 10:05 AM on March 20

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